Opening to the strain of chunky, menacing guitars, the title track of Gretchen Peters’ Blackbirds is one of the most affecting murder ballads since Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” left a trail of corpses strewn across the American landscape in the early Eighties. The two victims in “Blackbirds” aren’t the first she’s written into one of her tunes, and it’s not really clear what they’ve done to deserve their sad fate at the narrator’s hands, but the results are par for the course when it comes to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member. Peters is perhaps best known for the chilling – and ambiguous – “Independence Day,” which earned her a CMA Song of the Year trophy and has become a signature song for Martina McBride.
Blackbirds is Peters’ latest solo album and the follow-up to 2012’s disarmingly honest Hello Cruel World; it offers a deeply personal platform for a tunesmith whose songs have also been recorded by Trisha Yearwood (“On a Bus to St. Cloud”), Faith Hill (“The Secret of Life”), George Strait (“Chill of an Early Fall”) and Patty Loveless (“You Don’t Even Know Who I Am’), among others. The title track of the new LP, she says, offered her an irresistible proposition.
“I was intrigued with the idea of writing a murder ballad,” Peters tells Rolling Stone Country. “When I have those sort of generic thoughts that are more themed, I usually just wait. It’s like kind of planting a seed. Eventually, the song will manifest itself.”
Although the Pelham, New York, native has garnered a reputation as a solo songwriter, in more recent years she has found herself collaborating with other writers and musicians, including Ben Glover, who’s from the small village of Glenarm on the Irish seaside – a far cry from the tune’s southern Louisiana setting.
“It was the first song I wrote with Ben,” Peters says of the title cut. “He had been on the road with us for three tours, so we have a lot of comfort level together because we knew each other well. But it was quite a thing to dive in to the first song we wrote together and have it be that. But he’s an Irishman; they’re constitutionally built to handle that sort of stuff.”
Peters recalls that “Blackbirds,” unlike many of the songs she writes, was written in a linear fashion, and that the two approached it as if solving a crime, hunting down clues like Holmes and Watson, although another literary figure guided her approach while constructing — and then deconstructing — the clues.
“When you write a song like that and it’s a little bit murky, you have to know in your mind what’s happening,” she says. “But it’s like Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory. You have to leave a lot of it submerged, but you have to know what that submerged part looks like in order to write with any kind of impact and truth.”